Fletcher Cox wasn’t voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time in seven years. The Eagles defensive tackle wasn’t even named an alternate. He said he wasn’t surprised.
“I know I can still play at that level,” Cox said Thursday, a day after the NFL announced rosters for the annual All-Star game. “Obviously, I didn’t have the numbers this year. It was kind of up and down for me. I kind of expected it, but all I can do is go out and finish the season strong.
“I know I’m still one of the best d-tackles in the league.”
Cox showed glimpses of playing at that level in Tuesday’s victory over Washington. The veteran has in years prior often saved his best performances for late in the season or the playoffs. The 2021 Eagles could use that vintage of Cox if they are to sneak into the postseason.
With two sacks against Washington, he doubled his total in the first 13 games of the season. But he also forced a fumble, recorded seven pressures and consistently moved the pocket from his traditional three-technique inside spot, and also occasionally from the edge.
“He train-wrecked the game,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said.
But those moments have increasingly been fleeting over the last several years. And just over a month ago, it seemed as if Cox might not even be around after he asked the Eagles if he could shop his services before the trade deadline, league sources said.
The team obliged, and while interested teams didn’t meet the asking price, the mere idea of the Eagles’ best defensive player being dealt would have sounded outrageous just a few years ago.
Cox, though, was openly frustrated with how he was deployed in Gannon’s scheme. And the Eagles were, likewise, frustrated with how the team captain handled his disgruntlement, especially when it bubbled to the surface following the loss to the Raiders.
The 31-year-old had already offered hints of his dissatisfaction publicly. He also had sideline eruptions, most notably late in the Buccaneers defeat and then 10 days later in Las Vegas, which he confirmed after the game.
“It was one of those deals, as a player, I didn’t agree what was called on the defense,” Cox said then. “So I kind of let my frustration go, and that’s part of the game.”
He wasn’t the only one critical of Gannon’s calls. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr completed 91% of his passes, and coach Nick Sirianni said the defense didn’t “challenge” enough.
Gannon’s scheme, in general, is designed to limit explosive plays and compel offenses into runs and short passes. But top quarterbacks have preyed on its passive coverages. And on the line, Cox and others have struggled to adapt to a hybrid front that has them reading and reacting far more than they did in predecessor Jim Schwartz’s aggressive system.
“I don’t get paid to play screens,” was the most-quoted line from Cox’s post-Raiders rant.
But a week later Cox played a screen and notched a tackle for a loss in a lopsided win over the Lions. The defense reverted back into sieve-mode against quarterback Justin Herbert and the Chargers the following game, but the unit has been more sound in the five games since.
Gannon made minor adjustments. He mixed up his coverages, had his defensive backs closer to the line and blitzed more — but only marginally. Facing quarterbacks like Trevor Siemian, Zach Wilson, and Garrett Gilbert screamed for more aggressive play-calling.
But they still had spells of success. The Eagles’ best defense has really been the subpar quarterbacks they’ve faced and their offense, which has dominated on the ground and controlled the clock.
They’ve won four of their last five, though, and get to tee off on another suspect quarterback, whether it’s Mike Glennon or Jake Fromm under center for the New York Giants on Sunday.
Cox also appears more invested in his role. His production, likely as a result, has improved over that span. In the first nine games, he generated 18 pressures in 255 pass-rush attempts and was given a 11.6 “win percentage” by Pro Football Focus. But in the last five games, he has had 19 pressures in 148 rushes and a 17.9% win rate.
“I wanted to play this way earlier in the season, but the ball just wasn’t really bouncing the way that it is now,” Cox said Thursday. “I think now it’s just [getting] comfortable in the system, knowing what to expect, and it’s just putting it out on the field.
“Everybody’s on the same page up front.”
Cox’s counterpart inside, Javon Hargrave, has been productive from the jump, though. And his numbers have similarly increased in comparison. In the first nine games, he had 25 pressures in 214 rushes and a 17.3% win rate; and in the last five, he has had 25 pressures in 142 rushes and a 26.7% win rate.
Hargrave had a stronger argument for the Pro Bowl, but was only named an alternate.
Cox, if anything, has been more consistent against the run. But the Eagles didn’t hand their 2012 first-round draft pick a $100 million extension five years ago because of his ability to plug holes.
They paid him to collapse the pocket, move quarterbacks, and hit them. And that hasn’t been as much the case the last three years. Cox’s 2019-20 seasons, even if they ended with Pro Bowl appearances, showed signs of regression.
The first half of this season did little to dispute the notion that he was in steady decline. Gannon and Co. emphasized the double-team blocks he faced, but the ratio was only around 50-50. The early film wasn’t encouraging.
Late in the Bucs game, after Tom Brady converted a third down that all but sealed the game, Cox came off the field yelling expletives. Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker was nearby, but Gannon’s coverage, which was designed specifically for the game, appeared to be the source of Cox’s ire, team sources said.
Sideline tirades happen, but Cox had another the next week and couldn’t contain his annoyance afterward in the press room. Internal conversations ensued, some of them bitter, and Cox was given permission to talk with other teams, Eagles sources said.
Several suitors called, with the Steelers having the best offer, two sources close to the situation said. But general manager Howie Roseman’s demands were steep, mostly because the Eagles would have had a $37 million dead money cap hit after restructuring his contract before the season.
The remaining money on Cox’s reworked deal seemingly makes it difficult to move him next offseason, although Roseman has worked wonders before. Both parties may ultimately agree upon a mutually beneficial parting.
Cox may not be the force he once was, but he can still make an impact, as evidenced by the Washington game. And if his relationship with the Eagles has been momentarily repaired, as he suggested Thursday when asked if Gannon has earned his trust, maybe another year together can be salvaged.
But with Hargrave likely back, rookie Milton Williams in line for a larger role, and the Eagles armed with three first-round draft picks, Cox’s tenure in Philly could be nearing its end. A late surge could entice another team. He said he can still play at an elite level.
“I’m not salty about it at all,” Cox said of missing the Pro Bowl. “I’m happy for the guys that made it. Even happy for Hargave. I know he’s an alternative, and I’m happy for him. … But I’ll be back next year.”